Benson Bobrick: Wide as the Waters

July 25, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired.” The author is Benson Bobrick. It’s the story behind the translation of the Christian Bible into English, and the linguistic, political, religious, and cultural forces that translation unleashed. Well, welcome.


RAY SUAREZ: The… In the period that you write about, in the renaissance and enlightenment era, the bible was translated into a lot of languages. Why is it such a big deal, why is it such a milestone in history that we get this English… This series of English translations?

BENSON BOBRICK: Well, the short answer to that, the most succinct answer, would be that it ultimately sanctions the right of people to think for themselves, and what I mean by that is that, up through the middle ages, the Bible was known only in Latin, and the Church had cast itself in the role of the sole proper authority to interpret what the text said. It had interposed itself between the text and the reader.

It did so in part and not unreasonably because it believed that if the common people had access, free access, to the scriptures, it would give rise to unorthodox and possibly heretical interpretations, but there were many who believed that it was far more important than any threat that unorthodox opinions might arise that the scriptures be available to everyone, and that they could learn from them and the truths that scripture taught.

So a movement developed in England under John Wycliffe– he was the representative of it in the late 14th century — to see that the scriptures were rendered into the vernacular and made available to the people. He was succeeded by a number of other translators despite tremendous resistance from the Church, and subsequent translations were also christened by martyrs’ blood, but ultimately, by the middle of the 16th century, the scriptures were widely available in English, and once the people had direct access to the scriptures, it fostered habits of reading and reflection.

It led to an ever-widening circulation and production of books, as printing by then had been invented. At the same time, once the people were free to interpret the word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of all their inherited institutions, which led to reform within the Church.

RAY SUAREZ: But isn’t that exactly what various queens and kings and prelates had been afraid of? Weren’t they right to fear this translation?

BENSON BOBRICK: Absolutely, absolutely, but it did lead to reform, to the rise of constitutional government in England, first in England, and then ultimately to the end of the divine right of kings. So a great deal followed in its train, and all the free discussion, free thought, freedom of interpretation that gave authority to the individual conscience and to individual opinion is really the indispensable prerequisite to, for the democratic institutions that blossomed in its wake and that we now enjoy. So it had an immense impact and ramification on English and American politics and law.

RAY SUAREZ: I found some fascinating chicken-and-egg problems, too, to try to pull apart as I was reading the book.


RAY SUAREZ: You note that, after the bible’s been available for some time, the English people are the most literate people in Europe.

BENSON BOBRICK: That’s right.

RAY SUAREZ: And it’s hard to know whether they’re the most literate people because now the Bible is widely available to them to be read in English or whether the bible becomes important because these are already a very literate people.

BENSON BOBRICK: No, it’s really the thirst more. There was such a hunger and thirst for scripture, to be able to read it, that once it was available in English, people learned how to read their own language in order to read it, and children were then brought up, learned their ABCs from biblical texts, and the rise of literacy that you’re referring to really owes a great deal of its momentum and growth to the translation of scripture into English.

RAY SUAREZ: You also suggest that it, this English bible, is sort of a midwife to modern English, helps standardize it, helps bring in a lot of new words to the language.

BENSON BOBRICK: That’s right.

RAY SUAREZ: Just the act of making it apparently was a very important step.

BENSON BOBRICK: Yes, because there was a real effort to render Hebrew and Greek into idiomatic English. By the time the 16th century translators got to work, Wycliffe’s English had become too antique. It was too middle English to be understood by English people of the renaissance, and so the 16th century translators paid a special attention to rendering the scriptural tongues in a way which was both lofty and holy and familiar and direct, so that the common speech of the Bible would be a speech that everyone could read, but in its rendering would not lose the lofty spiritual character which it contained.

RAY SUAREZ: We also, as you note, have a lot of expressions that come directly from these early translations, and a lot of writers who take their cadence and their language from this.



BENSON BOBRICK: Oh, “salt of the earth,” “labor of love,” “the root of all evil,” “flowing with milk and honey,” all of those and many, many other phrases are familiar to us from those English translations. Each translation in turn contributed to the one that followed it, too, so when the series of translations culminate in the King James version, they for the most part carry forward into that version the very best of what the earlier versions contained, not without exception, but for the most part that’s true. So there’s a real evolutionary process to the English bible that was not true in any other language, in any other series of translations. That’s another thing that makes the English bible unique.

RAY SUAREZ: So there’s not today a German journalist sitting with a German historian having a similar conversation about the very important German Bible of that same era.

BENSON BOBRICK: Right. It was a very important German bible, but it wasn’t… And the German bible doesn’t represent an evolutionary process that’s at all akin to the English bible, nor was the translation of the English bible and the impetus it gave to free speech and free thought, in the way that it was linked with the constitutional development of England, that’s also a unique pairing, and that’s not true in any other culture.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Wide as the Waters.” Benson Bobrick, thanks for being with us.

BENSON BOBRICK: Thank you very much.